So here we are three years later, and Zack Snyder’s follow-up to his much maligned Man Of Steel, Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, arrives in theatres to a clamor of divisive fans who either call it the antidote to Marvel’s shopworn, easy-to-please formula, or one of the worst films ever made. Snyder’s film offers a wealth of support for each argument in a fairly schizophrenic film that might just be the result of bearing too many burdens: a course-correction for audience criticisms of Superman’s first outing, a continuation of Christopher Nolan’s brooding vision for the DC world, yet another new and exciting reboot for Batman, and ground zero for a veritable host of Justice League films – all of which combine to become a crushing weight likened to the wealth of responsibilities our titular superheroes carry on their shoulders. Unfortunately, in that only sense does the film successfully grasp either of its characters.
In a nutshell, the first half of Batman Vs. Superman is surprisingly great, while the second half is absolute garbage. There’s a chance audience members could feel the opposite, but much less of a chance that anyone will find the entire thing spectacular. Snyder opens the film interestingly enough unspooling the umpteenth cinematic re-enactment of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents while the credits roll, as if the backstory was but mere bits of information, no different than revealing the name of the cinematographer. The entire first hour plays out in similar fashion, frantically bouncing around between its overcrowded cast to construct a reactionary premise born from the sheer amount of destruction Metropolis endured at the hands of Superman during the final reel of Man Of Steel. Turning this enduring fan criticism into a vital part of the ongoing storyline is a masterstroke, and Snyder lays the foundation for an entire world of doubt at the feet of Superman with the same kind of dizzying euphoria found in his career peak, Watchmen, which to its great credit often feels like Oliver Stone tackling a graphic novel. Left to internalize this conflict is Bruce Wayne, who lost a financial building in the fray, and feels similarly to a large faction of the world at large, that an untethered, omnipotent alien from another planet has no place on planet Earth. So he sets out with a plan to destroy him, a character motivation I do not for one second buy, but which is thankfully echoed in the sentiments of other individuals, a senator (Holly Hunter) about to hold a hearing on Superman’s actions, and resident villain Lex Luthor, played with manic intensity by Jesse Eisenberg.
There is a sense during all of this that Snyder is attempting to offer a release from the mechanics of Marvel’s cinematic universe. Here, finally, is a superhero film with real world implications, not just in some tossed-off Libertarian commentary on pre-emptive strikes and drone warfare, like the bulk of producer Kevin Feige’s Phase Two offerings, but in a global conversation about the questionable benefits of a God-like figure who can do anything, walking among us. Snyder is putting the very nature of comic book superheroes on trial, exactly like he did in Watchmen, but this time catering to the masses, begging us to meet his interests on his terms. After all we came for the characters, and are a captive audience to his string-pulling.
But then something starts happening about half way through the film. These themes get discarded in pursuit of the almighty showdown, here a protracted battle between our heroes, distracted away from fighting amongst themselves, and Doomsday, a malevolent creation of Lex Luthor’s from General Zod’s DNA, which has similar strength to Superman. That B Vs. S quickly devolves into a CGI slugfest akin to the worst moments of Transformers should come as no surprise, as the climax seems to be the one aspect of these films that Hollywood cannot refuse an audience. It ruined the end of Captain America: Winter Soldier, and The Avengers, and I suppose DC only has the guts to deviate from the proven formula so much. The best scene in the film comes at an evening party attended by both Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent, where Wayne’s ulterior motive is to steal some files on meta-humans, and Kent’s supersonic hearing picks up his chatter and begins to follow him to see what he is up to. Sadly there is not enough of these scenes, where character traits feed into espionage, that give Snyder a chance to indulge in some actual filmmaking.
It’s clear DC is stuck at a crossroads, uncertain how to distinguish their films from Marvel’s box office juggernauts and still offer what they perceive the fans want. So long as they are beholden to this idea that mindless entertainment trumps story they are doomed to fail. Marvel has spent the better part of ten years perfecting their very flawed cinematic universe, and their characters have a built-in appeal now that requires virtually no further development – like wind-up dolls they can crank up and let rip every six months or so until the trend is exhausted. For all DC’s attempts, and especially Snyder’s here with Batman Vs. Superman, these films will always play second fiddle. I appreciate the darker, more psychological approach, but they need to either find a way to stick with that from start to finish, like Christopher Nolan did so successfully with his Dark Knight trilogy, or come up with something entirely unique. Audiences didn’t seek out Marvel films for their formula, but nevertheless one has emerged, and now their films are as comforting to people as chicken noodle soup and homemade apple pie. Every Marvel film is exactly the same, with few exceptions. It’s okay if DC films are the same way, but they cannot be the exact same as Marvel, and the clock is ticking on the audience’s patience.
The Verdict: Pan